Posted by Chris on February 25, 2009

focus1I use Spaces and Quicksilver to increase my focus on the task that I am currently working on. By hiding focus-stealing applications from view in another desktop, and interacting with them through Quicksilver, I can stay focused on my task. Read on for more details.

For a couple of weeks now I have been deliberately trying to become more effective by improving focus during daily work. I have had a lot of inspiration from Staffan Nöteberg, whose book Pomodoro Technique Illustrated is a great read. I have tried using the Pomodoro Technique a bit, but for various reasons (one being synchronizing with my colleagues) I’m trying other similar techniques such as PCEO now. Regardless of which technique I have been using I have also tried using some technology to help me focus, and that is what I wanted to write a quick post about here. Specifically there are two applications, Spaces and Quicksilver, that I have been semi-using on my Mac for a long time, but not really been able to see or draw any real benefit from.

Focus on the task at hand

When I am working I want to be able to focus on the specific task that I am doing right now. For instance, if I am writing an article I want to have Textmate (or some other application for writing) running, perhaps a couple of browser windows/tabs with some information I need for the article, and perhaps a Finder window. Just things relevant to this task, and for those applications that can have multiple windows or tabs only the relevant windows.

What I do not want to see is iTunes, Mail, an IM application, lots of browser windows/tabs with “other stuff” not relevant for this task, a development environment, Finder windows for other things, my note-taking application or anything else that could steal my focus if I would look at them.

A simple solution is of course to simply quit all these other applications. But that means it will take a lot longer to switch context to other tasks, or catch up on mail and other communication during a quick break. And perhaps I do want iTunes running since music helps me focus, I just do not want to see it because I can easily get stuck navigating songs. Minimizing all these applications is not much better than closing them, since it still makes it difficult with context switching.


The solution for me has been Spaces, the built-in virtual desktop application in Mac OS X Leopard. Using Spaces, I have arranged my desktops according to tasks. The basic setup has three desktops that always exist:

  • My first desktop starts out blank. This is where I work.
  • The second desktop is my communication hub. Mail, IM, Twitter, RSS reader etc, all those kind of applications are normally always running here. I also have my calendar and todo’s open and showing here all the time.
  • My third desktop is my reading place. Articles, blog posts etc that I defer reading until later are dumped here.

At any given time, I normally have a couple of other desktops created. For instance, since I am interested in photography I normally have a number of browser windows open specifically for reading about photography, and also for following different communities that I take part in. I want to be able to quickly overview what is going on in that area, so I more or less always have a separate desktop dedicated for that. Other ongoing work such as sales usually have a dedicated desktop as well.

More importantly, when I am working on some task (on desktop #1) and decide to postpone it for later, I usually create a new desktop and dump everything there. That way I am ready to start a new task with an empty desktop, and I can easily get everything back when I decide to switch back to the previous task.

Finally, I really like having a communication and planning desktop. This is where I go when I come back from a quick break, to get an overview of any changes that might affect my planning.

Recovering gracefully from interruptions

When I am focused on something, possibly in a nice state of flow, I do not want to lose that focus to an interruption I did not plan for (breaks should be planned often to reflect and re-plan as necessary). However, interruptions cannot simply be ignored. The Pomodoro technique describes some good principles for handling internal and external interruptions. Usually it comes down to making a note of whatever was so important to interrupt you, and scheduling time for taking care of it later.

However, there might be some interruptions that I want to act on immediately. For instance, something as simple as iTunes switching to a song that I do not want to listen to right now. I could switch to iTunes, but that would carry the risk of ‘getting stuck’ navigating songs and thereby losing focus. Another example is sending a quick email (such as just a file that someone needs), or adding something to a todo list. The common theme for all of these are that I need to interact with some other program, but to avoid losing focus I do not want to interact with it directly.

Email a file

Email a file

This is where Quicksilver really shines. With just a couple of keystrokes I can email that file to my colleague, without even seeing the mail application. It is still ‘hidden’ in another desktop, and there is no risk of me seeing that super interesting but non-urgent email lying in my inbox. Quicksilver has tons of plugins that allow me to do these quick indirect interactions with applications, which means I can recover from an interruption without losing my focus.

Pen and paper rules!

With that said however, as a final note I want to warn you not to rely to heavily on technology. Pen and paper are the base components of whatever focus-helping technique I use. Daily planning of what activities I need to do today, simple follow-up on where my time was spent, and taking notes of things to reflect upon later is best done using just pen and paper.


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  • @Tobias:

    > ...I find that spontanous and needed dailly verbal communication in a team is hard to plan for...

    Agreed, and that is one of the reasons why I decided to try other techniques as well.

  • >Re: Pomodoro and programming. In my experience, Pomodoro works really well when I have a lot of different tasks, such as communication.

    Perhaps. But I find that spontanous and needed dailly verbal communication in a team is hard to plan for. Mail communication probably is though.

    >I personally use a notebook and a nice pen.

    Phew. Nope. Not for me I think. And I don't think it is flexible since I like to list things in prioritized orders, kind of like a Scrum backlog. Computers are good tools for reordering stuff quickly. Pen and paper are not. :) I guess tough that I can reevaluation if ordering is really necessary for a brief todo-list.

  • Bah! I missed reading that Spaces and Quicksilver were for Mac.. :( And why on earth is not Microsoft Windows providing multiple virtual desktops? That feature is not exactly new.

  • Tobias, nice that I could provide some inspiration. Some comments on your thoughts:

    Re: Pomodoro and programming. In my experience, Pomodoro works really well when I have a lot of different tasks, such as communication. By prioritizing those tasks along with programming, and scheduling them all for pomodoros, it does not matter whether I finished a programming task or not. What is important is that I am happy with my prioritization and that I get to check off a number of pomodoros.

    Re: to-do list and tools. I personally use a notebook and a nice pen. Nothing is more flexible. I also like the Emergent Task Planner from the PCEO series referenced above for doing my daily planning.

  • That's some great suggestions you have I think. I have given it a lot of thought lately of how to increase my own focus factor and I think your hints definitly will help me.

    I have tried out the pomodoro technique too, and I think it works if you only do programming and nothing else. Usually though there's a lot of necessary communication that needs to be done during the day. Taking that "pomodoro mind break" then becomes frustrating since I feel I have not done any coding at all... :(.

    Well, I will continue to think I guess. But thanks for the tool hints and your thoughts on the area!

    PS. In my frustration, I've even started building my own tailor made to-do list since I've never come across such a tool that works as I would like it to work...

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